getting past emergentism

Richard L. Hall rhall at
Tue Apr 10 07:22:35 EST 2001

It seems that once again a wonderful but complex model falls to 
assault based on strange definitions of terms and the need of some to 
reduce complex systems into nice neat components.  Emergent 
properties are real, just as evolution is real.

The suggestion that "emergent properties" is a scientifically useless 
term is intellectually bankrupt.  Emergent properties are a 
fundamental characteristic of any complex natural system.  It has 
even been used to generalize the influences of industrialization on 
the emergence of social issues (eg., more time and resources for arts 
and leisure, more resources for funding targeted scientific inquiry). 
A very biological example of emergent properties is the impact of 
sexual reproduction greatly accelerated the process of adaptive 
radiation and speciation.   Another is the effect of caffeine on 
clarity of thought (up to a point).  Eureka!        :-)

Emergent properties are clearly evident in the structure function 
relationships of the brain.  The brain is highly compartmentalized 
but it is difficult to physically isolate one functional compartment 
from the whole because higher levels or organization are actually 
emergent from lower levels.  For example, the auditory cortex plays a 
critical role in sound analysis, but by the same token it represents 
a projection of processing from the medial geniculate nuclei of the 
thalamus and brainstem nuclei such as  inferior colliculus and 
olivary which receive projections from cochlear nuclei in the medulla 
oblongata.  The medulla oblongata is part of the brainstem but 
retains many more organizational features of the spinal cord. 
Further, another complex structure, the cerebellum, has the potential 
to modulate ascending sensory information as it moves through the 
brain stem and provide reflex modulation of auditory function (but 
that is another story).  Clearly information processing is stratified 
and each "higher" layer confers new value to sensory information 
collected in the inner ear.  The literature is rich with examples of 
behavioral correlates to processing at different levels but it is 
also clear that most levels are necessary for any behavior to occur.

Regardless of semantics, there is general agreement that "conscious" 
processing of complex or simple sounds emerges somewhere between 
thalamic relays and either projections to the auditory cortex or 
possibly the basal nuclei (also considered cerebral nuclei) has a 
logical basis, but it is also a circular conceit because the concept 
of "conscious mind" is as yet poorly defined while generally accepted.

Emergent properties are an apt description of observations, nothing 
more.  Attempts to explain the evolution of these properties has a 
strong conceptual basis.  I must emphasize that our inability to 
satisfy every specific question as to the origins of complex systems 
DOES NOT weaken the case for evolutionary processes.  We exist in the 
here and now, and many of the transitional stages in complex systems 
could have occurred in myriad ways long ago.  The confusion is 
between observing what has apparently happened (as described with 
evolutionary theory) and what could have happened based on modern 
understandings of information processing and design (as modeled by 
intellectual design folks).  One is science and the latter is 
revisionist science fiction.


>GS writes:
>GS: But the problem (exemplified nicely by the
>above statement) is that the notion of "emergent
>properties" does not, in itself, suggest how we are to
>evaluate the cogency of the concepts involved. The
>alleged "mind," for example, may be totally lame.
>Thus, how could we provide a reductionistic
>account of a scientifically useless term?
>"Richard Norman" <rsnorman at> wrote in message
>news:wBFz6.3064$uh5.86367 at
>>  "Xander Marion" <xandermarion at> wrote on Sat, 07 Apr 2001:
>  > > I'm banging my head against the wall trying to figure out
>>  > how to get past the theory that conciousness is an emergent
>>  > property of the brain. Anyone have any thoughts on how this
>>  > might be better understood while still focusing on a
>>  > neuroscience perspective?
>>  What is the problem with emergent properties?   All complex
>>  systems made of a hierarchy of levels of organization show
>>  emergent properties.  No individual component of a negative
>>  feedback circuit "knows" how to regulate, yet a negative
>>  feedback system can result in regulation.
>>  The brain is made of cells which are made of molecules which
>>  are made of ....  But certainly consciousness is not a property
>>  of cells or molecules.
>>  A computer is (or can be) made of logic circuits.  But the
>>  notion of "a computer running Microsoft Outlook Express
>>  to display this email message" is not a property of those
>>  logic circuits.  It depends on a particular configuration of
>>  circuits plus the particular configuration of data.
>>  So why couldn't the notion of consciousness be an
>>  emergent property of the neurophysiological properties
>  > of neurons (plus glia) plus the particular configuration of
>>  synapses and chemicals and cell signaling machinery
>>  plus the particular configuration of cell metabolic process?
>>  The existence of emergent properties does not mean that
>>  neuroscience does not explain the machinery of the
>>  mind.  It is just that knowing how the machinery works
>>  is not enough for a full explanation of what the machinery
>>  does.

Richard L. Hall, Ph.D.
Comparative Animal Physiologist

University of the Virgin Islands
2 John Brewers Bay
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. 00802

340-693-1385 FAX

rhall at

"Live life on the edge...the view is always better"  rlh
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